By BRUCE DENNILL
Charl-Johan Lingenfelder, is the co-writer of the superb Afrikaans coming-of-age drama Kanarie. More interestingly, he is also the inspiration for the story, with the experiences of the film’s protagonist Johan Niemand – a young man from a conservative background who is conscripted and learns lessons about himself and his culture through the filter of his military service – mirroring those of Lingenfelder as a teenager.
Many will know you best for your work as a musical director in theatre and perhaps initially assume that your involvement in Kanarie is peripheral. Yet your experiences are the foundation of the story. As more people are seeing and asking questions about the film, are you finding that they interact with you in different ways now?
A lot of people are not even aware of it – who I was before the movie and who I am now. A lot of people just think this is what I do.
So they’re interacting with the version of you they understand to exist because of the film?
Yes, I think so. For a long time, I was up until one every morning answering messages about people’s experiences – as serviceman, as gay people, as dominees [ministers] and as mothers. I think the biggest success of the film is that it’s given people an opportunity to talk. There was one guy telling me about a traumatic experience he had 40 years ago, and I’m the first person he’s spoken to about it.
It was a brave step to put as much as you have into the script.
When Christiaan [Olwagen, Kanarie co-writer and director] and I were writing the screenplay, I said to him we must do it warts and all. I remember chatting to friends and family and saying, “This may change your life for a while.” I was prepared for a lot of negative reaction, but so far it’s been positive. The producers were like therapists, which helped. And now we’ve given it to the world.
A lot of people are shocked at the honesty, but that’s the point. And that authenticity has been appreciated. We received a message from a dominee to say thanks for not crucifying the NG Kerk in the film, which was an extraordinary reaction. That was never the intention; we just wanted a representation of reality as we experienced it. You can’t remove sexuality from the equation.
Maybe the best feedback we’ve received, and from a number of people, is: “Where was this film when I was 17? It would have helped me live a normal life.”
What was it like choosing an actor to portray you, or at least a version of you, rather than a fictional character? Schalk Bezuidenhout is a revelation – another case of expectations being defied by reality. Did you need to communicate anything particular to him to get him portray what you wanted him to?
With Schalk, we found that there was an essence to him that worked, rather than an ability to play piano or some of the other requirements. And that can be all you need. We were aware that it’s a film, so there would always be some level of representation. And, in fact, we never thought of anyone else for the role. Christiaan actually knew Schalk from his days as a drama student, before he became a stand-up comedian.
In terms of guiding Schalk, Christiaan and I tend to blur the lines around whose job is what. Christiaan spent a lot of time with Schalk talking about me, but Schalk also came around to my house, and was all enthused about my record collection. I made him playlists of music I love, and taught him how to play piano. I found that I was inspired while writing the screenplay, so I wrote Schalk some music, which he kept on his phone – he had it with him on set and would play it all the time.
He had to do some things differently to the way I would have done them. Some of the language the Kanaries use in the film, for instance, is much more contemporary than we used – without that, audiences might struggle to understand what was happening. What is coming through though, judging from comments we’ve had, is that people are understanding that it’s possible to have pleasant people in a context where that might be unexpected.
The film’s soundtrack was obviously an area of particular interest and expertise for you as an experienced musical director. How and why were the artists you include chosen?
Given the ridiculously short time we had to put this together, we just used the songs I did sing. I did love Boy George, and that scene with his photograph tucked into the Bible – that happened. I put in Lesley Rae Dowling because I’m a huge fan, and the song Small Town Boy, which we use in the opening sequence, just had the right feel. Getting the rights to use everything was tough, but the producers were always on board.
With the church stuff, Christiaan and I both had an instinctive feel for what would work. And the song Ek Verlang Na Jou is beautiful and also, in this context, ironic. It’s the kind of thing that reinforces how far removed what we were living was from reality.
The response to Kanarie has been overwhelmingly positive – both before and after it was made, what with the piece being imagined in March, pitched in August and filming by November 2016. Many of the themes – identity, acceptance, taking on bullying and so on – are common enough. Why do you think that now is such a good time to be tapping into these issues?
I think this film takes people a little bit away from the familiarity of all of that. It’s in Afrikaans, and it’s in a different context; a time and a place not covered much before, which resonates with a number of people.
Some of our issues – particularly as whites, and as Afrikaners – are usually only played out in private. This brings it all out into the open. And we’re all connected to people like the ones we see on screen, be they gay, or bullied, or whatever. It’s all in one movie: religion, sexuality, violence – all of those conversations take place. It also speaks to people who are struggling; who want to stay on the straight and narrow, and gives them comfort and awareness that they’re not alone.
People see themselves in the characters, and experience a kind of redemption. Even the naysayers – if you ask them to watch the film with their hearts rather than with their heads, they’d likely come out as softer people, which is a good thing.
It was actually very difficult for Christiaan and I on set. When we were struggling, we’d ask ourselves, “Why are we going through this?” And it’d come back to what I said earlier: if we had seen this film when we were 17, it would’ve changed our lives.
Another reason it has a wide appeal, I think, is that there’s very little in the film that is alienating, and if there is something, viewers are invested in what’s happening by the time they get to that.
The film features such a wonderful cast, including perfectly formed cameos from Anna-Mart Van Der Merwe, Jennifer Steyn and Laudo Liebenberg, among others. How was that line-up assembled and how important was it to the way the project turned out?
We were lucky. It was often just friends, pulling in for the day. Christiaan has worked with most of them. And they often surprised us with what they delivered – Anna-Mart’s gave her character such intensity.
Schalk was incredibly brave. As a comedian, he is reliant on a certain crowd for his bread and butter, but he was never scared that his reputation would suffer as a result of taking this role. I think that’s an encouraging aspect of this generation of performers.
Another bit of excellence is in the subtitles used, which communicate the real message of what is being said rather than making straight translations which wouldn’t convey as much emotion.
English people are watching Kanarie, and that’s great! We spent loads of time translating the lines to carry the feel of what was said. And there was always a commercial aspect to that as well – we wanted it to make sense to festival audiences abroad.